5.1 Hacks #55-64

There are no two ways about it: a photo can make or break an auction.

Attractive, clear, well-composed photos will excite your customers and get you more money for your items. Poor photos, however, will make your item ? and therefore your auction ? less desirable. And having no photo is tantamount to auction suicide. None of this should surprise you. But there's a lot to think about when it comes to taking photos, transferring them to your computer, preparing the files, and putting them in your auctions.

See [Hack #55] and [Hack #56] for tips on taking good auction photos.

5.1.1 Getting Photos into Your Computer

Probably the biggest hurdle that most sellers face is getting photos into their computers. In most cases, this involves an investment, not only of money for equipment, but of time taking photos and preparing them properly. If you do it right, though, the investment will more than pay for itself in a very short time.

The first step involves taking the photos, as explained in [Hack #55]. Naturally, this requires a camera, and in this department you have several options:

Digital camera

Easily the best choice for taking auction photos, a digital camera allows you to see your results immediately and get your photos online quickly.

Better digital cameras have better optics and take higher-resolution photos (more megapixels); the one you choose depends on your budget and your needs. But since the largest auction photos are typically no bigger than 800 x 600, which translates to only about 0.5 megapixels, the camera's resolution will not be that important. If you're shopping for a camera specifically for shooting auction photos, look for one with a good macro (close-up) lens.

All digital cameras come with cables for transferring images to your computer. Often, however, a digital film reader will be quicker and more convenient. Look for a USB-based memory card reader that accepts all major memory card formats, including CompactFlash, SecureDigital, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, SmartMedia, and xD Picture cards.

If a digital camera seems expensive, consider that the extra money you'll get for your items by having good photos will more than pay for a digital camera (which you can buy used on eBay!).

Video-conferencing camera

An alternative is to buy a video-conferencing camera ? the kind that sits on top of your monitor and connects directly to your USB port. Since they have no internal memory, no LCD screens, and no optics to speak of, these cameras are remarkably cheap (with prices starting at under $10), and most support taking snapshots of at least 640 x 480. Make no mistake, however ? the quality is pretty lousy, so it should be used only if you have no other choice at the moment.

Film camera

Never fear?film purists among us will not be left out in the cold. Flatbed scanners are cheap and relatively easy to use, and allow you to transform any print into an image file in about a minute.

Furthermore, many film developers include CDs (or floppies) with film processing, sometimes at no additional cost. The quality is nothing to write home about, but it's convenient nonetheless. You can also send your undeveloped film to an online photo service, such as Kodak's Ofoto (www.ofoto.com) or Shutterfly (www.shutterfly.com). In a few days, you'll be able to download high-quality scans from their web site.

Any way you do it, however, you'll be subject to the limitations of film photography, namely the film and developing costs, and, of course, the wait. With digital, you know right away if the picture came out, which can be especially hard to predict when taking close-up auction photos.

5.1.2 Image Editors

Regardless of how you take your photos and get them into your computer, you'll eventually end up with one or more image files. But before you send them to eBay or upload them to your web server (as described in [Hack #59]), you'll need to prepare your images, and for that, you'll need an image editor.

A good image editor will be able to do the following:

  • Read, write, and convert all popular image file formats (see the next section)

  • Basic image manipulation, such as crop, resize, and rotate

  • Basic touch-up, including clone, line, and text tools

  • Basic color adjustments, such as contrast, brightness, and color balance

  • Batch processing (converting or modifying a group of files in one step)

Here are some of the image editors currently available, including both free and commercial applications:

Adobe Photoshop (www.adobe.com)

Easily the best photo editor available, Photoshop will do just about anything you'll ever need when it comes to processing auction photos. The Windows and Macintosh versions are practically identical, meaning that the Photoshop-specific instruction in this book (which covers Version 7) should be easy to follow. The down side is that Photoshop is rather expensive, and is probably overkill for most eBay sellers.

Adobe Photoshop Elements (www.adobe.com)

Essentially a scaled-down version of Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements offers many of the basic functions ? without the sophistication or the steep learning curve ? of its older cousin at a fraction of the price.

Jasc Paint Shop Pro (www.jasc.com)

Although not nearly as capable as Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro's strengths lie in its support for every conceivable image format and its ability to easily and quickly convert between them. Supports Windows only.

VicMan's Photo Editor (vicman.net/vcwphoto)

A free image editor for Windows with a good assortment of tools.

IrfanView (www.irfanview.com)

Also free, IrfanView is a basic image viewer with some image manipulation tools.

The Gimp (mmmaybe.gimp.org)

A free image editor for Unix, Windows, Macintosh, and even OS/2!

iPhoto and MS Paint

iPhoto and MS Paint are free image editors that come with Mac OS X and Windows, respectively. Although they support only rudimentary functionality, these programs have the significant advantages of being free and already installed on your computer.

Most of the specific instruction in this chapter covers Photoshop and, where applicable, Paint Shop Pro. Although most image editors work similarly to these programs, the usage and location of the various features will likely be a little different. Refer to the documentation included with your favorite image editor for details on its tools and capabilities.

5.1.3 Image Formats

Of all the different image file formats, the only one you should ever use for your photos is the JPG (pronounced "jay-peg") format. JPG files support 24-bit color, which is sufficient to reproduce all the hues you'll ever need for auction photos. JPG files also support compression (discussed in the next section), which means that they will be smaller and will load more quickly than the same images stored in most other formats.

Other image file formats you might encounter include:


GIF files support only 8-bit color (256 shades with an adaptive palette), which makes for pretty lousy photos. But GIF also has "lossless" compression (as opposed to the lossy compression used by JPG), which means that it's a better choice for logos, drawings, and text. GIF images are supported by all web browsers.


The Windows Bitmap format is the default format used by MS Paint, the rudimentary image editor included with Microsoft Windows. Not all web browsers support BMP files, and with good reason?the BMP format doesn't support compression, so even the smallest photos consume huge amounts of data. Never put BMP images in web pages.


TIFF is the default file format for many flatbed scanners. If your scanner supports JPG but your JPG scans look bad, it's because your scanner software doesn't allow you to adjust the JPG compression, explained in the next section. In this case, your best bet is to save your scans as TIFF files and convert them with a suitable image editor (covered in the previous section).


The PNG format has all the advantages of JPG with some of the added features of GIF (such as animation). Unfortunately, the format was established years after the web browser, so many older browsers don't support it. In a few years, when the older browsers have mostly disappeared, PNG files will be a better choice.

Any decent image editor should be able to convert files between any of these image file formats.

5.1.4 Preparing Images for eBay

Before you put a photo in your auction, you'll want to take the following steps:

  1. Crop the image to remove anything that isn't for sale.

  2. Resize the image. If you're using eBay's Picture Services to host your photo, the image doesn't need to be any larger than 400 x 300 (or 800 x 600 if you're using the "supersize" option). Although eBay will shrink your photo down for you, it will turn out better if you do it yourself. Plus, you'll have less data to send when it's time to start the auction.

    If you have access to a web server and can host your own photos [Hack #59], you have more freedom as to the size of your photos. But it's still a good idea to keep your images no larger than 800 x 600; otherwise, your bidders may be annoyed by photos that take too long to load and run off the sides of their screens.

  3. If necessary, touch up the photo using any of the techniques outlined in [Hack #57].

  4. Save your photo as a JPG file. See Dialing in the JPG Compression for more information.

Dialing in the JPG Compression

The JPG file format supports adjustable "lossy" compression, which means that some information is lost when the image is compressed. The higher the level of compression, the more data is thrown away, and the worse the resulting photo will look. Conversely, a lower compression level will provide crisper photos, but at a cost: the resulting files are larger and take longer to load.

A good compromise is somewhere in the middle, with a slight bias toward better quality. The confusing part is that different programs represent compression levels differently. For example, the "quality" setting in Adobe Photoshop ranges from 0 to 12, with 7 typically being a reasonable compromise. In Paint Shop Pro, the "compression factor" ranges from 1 to 99, with 15 being a good compromise. And digital cameras typically have three settings: Fine, Normal, and Basic, with Normal often being the best compromise.

You may wish to perform a few experiments before settling on a single compression level. For instance, one of the example 300 x 225 photos in this chapter saved with the lowest quality setting (representing the highest level of compression) produced a 17 KB file and a miserable-looking image. Conversely, the same image saved at the highest quality setting (and least compression) produced a 50 KB file. While the high-quality image looked excellent, it was virtually indistinguishable from the same image saved with a medium-quality setting of 7, which topped out at only 27 KB (roughly half the size).

Naturally, your mileage will vary with the photos you take and the software you use. Note that eBay's Picture Services, explained in [Hack #59], tends to over-compress photos, which may be reason enough to host them yourself.

When your photos are ready to go, the last step is to put them on the Web so they will appear in auction photos. The easiest way to do this is to use eBay's Picture Services, which allows you to upload the files to eBay as part of the Sell Your Item form. If you want more control, however, you may want to host your own photos [Hack #59].